03/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Who Rules the Recliner Now?

The Pew Research Center put together some trends from Census data in a new report, which is getting covered by the NYTimes and others. The underlying facts for the last four decades are:
    1. Women's earnings have risen faster, as their employment rates and hours have increased 2. Women's education level has risen faster, with more women than men now completing college 3. Marriage rates have fallen slower - and divorce rates have fallen slower - for those with college degrees, so the married population is increasingly more educated than singles.
The result of all that is more married couples in which wives earn as much or more than their husbands.

The greater earnings of married women, and tendency of higher earners to marry each other, has also increased inequality between married and unmarried people - as we've seen before, for example with health insurance. The Pew report calculates income adjusted for household size, and shows that married people are in higher income households now:

One could conclude from this that things have gotten better for the average married men - his household income has gone up more than his individual income. (In fact, the wage premium that married men has slipped.) That's where you get this:

Things are sweeter than ever for the recliner kings of America's four-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath castles. Contemporary American husbands are working less, going to school less, living longer and are reaping the benefits of wives who are bringing home the big bucks more than any of their dapper "Mad Men" counterparts of the 1960s.

Let's also not forget, though, that the wives who were not "working" were just not getting paid for their work. I've tried to make the case that the movement from unpaid to paid work for women is a job shift - and a crucial one - rather than a movement into "work." It's not clear how to assess the benefits - or losses - that men derive from this transformation. That recliner-king image assumes that employed wives still do the unpaid work of the household, but the best predictor of how much housework a woman does may be her own income.

That's why I don't buy this:

"When you think about it from a guy's perspective, marriage wasn't such a great deal," says Richard Fry of the Pew Research Center. "It raised a household size, but it didn't bring in a lot more income."

What about the value of all that work the stay-at-home wife did? Maybe it was more inefficient, but the report also shows with survey data on decision-making, wives get more say-so when they earn more - the price a "recliner king" pays, willingly or not.

Cross posted from the Family Inequality blog.